Armagh Harps keeper Patrick Morrison hoping to mould more good times in Ulster
AS far as preparations go for a county final, Patrick Morrison’s couldn’t have been worse.
Two days out from Armagh Harps’ decider with defending champions Maghery, his 18-month-old son Lochlainn was running a temperature.
To make matters worse, he’d broken out in a rash.
Like any parent, Morrison was willing - praying - the temperature gauge to dip below 40°C.
Facing Maghery at a heaving Athletic Grounds at tea-time on Sunday couldn’t have been further from Morrison’s mind.
There are sleepless nights and then there is this.
The following day it emerged Lochlainn was suffering from a bad dose of chicken pox.
Morrison's heart danced when his son's temperature dropped to normal.
Half an hour before throw-in, Morrison and sub goalie Anthony Wilson are going through their routine.
Wilson drops in a high ball.
Morrison back pedals, jumps, comes down on his own water bottle and jars his ankle.
He steps out for a few minutes, cursing his luck.
Thankfully, the strength returns to his ankle and he's more mindful of where he throws his water bottle for the next few drills.
Over the next 60 minutes, Morrison produced a performance that goalkeepers dream about.
He gave an exhibition of placed kicking that provided a rock-solid basis for the Harps to claim their first county championship in 26 years.
It was the absolute devil-may-care, nonchalance of Morrison’s kick-outs that stood out like a sore thumb: short, right side, left side, down the middle.
With a unique two-step run-up the 33-year-old county ‘keeper landed the ball on a sixpence. With back spin if you wanted some.
The Maghery players didn’t know whether to mark players or space.
And to round off a near-perfect performance, Morrison made a one-handed save on the goal-line in stoppage-time to deny Ben Crealey - the kind of balletic dive that would have left Gordon Banks green with envy.
“All I could think about during the match was Lochlainn, my wife Phillippa, Katie (12) and Scarlett (11 weeks),” Morrison says.
“With Lochlainn being sick and getting all the attention I was thinking of the others not getting as much, and Phillippa worrying.
“I was thinking of my family, and I think that’s what calmed me more than anything because I wasn’t worrying about the match.
“Family is the most important thing. If I had to give football up for them I’d give it up in a heartbeat.”
Two early second-half goals from Ryan McShane and Ultan Lennon swung the Armagh County final in Harps’ favour.
The sound of Kevin Faloon’s final whistle.
The Armagh Harps supporters storming onto the pitch like a damn's banks bursting.
Conor White’s adrenaline-fuelled victory speech.
It was how these players imagined it.
When the game was over, Morrison felt “a bit disorientated”.
“I was lifting footballs and water bottles because I didn’t want anyone taking them, and then I was thinking: ‘We’ve just won a championship. What am I doing?’
Morrison broke with his post-match protocol of lifting all his belongings and joined in the celebrations.
“With the family there, it was unbelievable.”
Afterwards, he had a meal with the team and half a pint of Guinness before making his way home to Lochlainn.
As far as county final preparations go, Morrison wouldn’t recommend them.
For a man who lives and swears by process, his performance remains one of those joyful mysteries that is better left untouched.
With a county medal in his back pocket and an inter-county career that is bound to bloom, Morrison’s best days arguably lie ahead of him.
And yet, at 24-years-old he gave up Gaelic football and had no intentions of returning to it.
At that time he was playing midfield but wasn’t getting enough game-time.
He ended up playing a bit of soccer for Mid-Ulster Football League club Red Star.
Gone for four years, Morrison received a phone call from Aidan Breen and was asked to help out the senior team.
His role? Sub goalie.
“They were heading into championship at the time and if anything happened to the other goalkeeper they didn’t have a back-up,” Morrison recalls.
“Aidan said to me just to turn up for matches if I wanted and I said that if they wanted me to cover I wasn’t just going to turn up for matches. I’d come to training and if I play, I play.
“The following year I pushed into the starting team and a year after that I was on the Armagh panel.
“We played in back-to-back county finals in 2014 and 2015 [losing both to Crossmaglen Rangers].”
Morrison doesn’t regret his four-year sabbatical from Gaelic football.
“It’s like anything, if you don’t like doing something it’s not worth doing – be it a job, a hobby or anything else.
“I just took time away from football. I just got sick of it.
“I don’t look back at it as wasted years; I went away and did different things, I met my wife in that time.
“But when I came back I definitely put my heart and soul into it and I said to myself: ‘I’m going to make the most of this.’
When it comes to studying Gaelic football, Patrick Morrison is a chip off the old block.
His father, John, is one of the game’s celebrated free thinkers.
Over the last 10 years, the art of goalkeeping has evolved to an unrecognisable level.
Morrison deflects the praise and stresses the advances in coaching development.
He uses the sculptor-and-stone analogy to make his point.
“There’s an old saying about the sculptor and the piece of stone. Everyone says to the sculptor that it was brilliant how he made that. And the sculptor says: ‘I didn’t do it at all – I just brushed away the hard edges.’
“So the game is there – the coaching and coaching development brushes away those rough edges and makes the game what it is.
“You only have to look back at the game in the 70s and how it used to be played and how coaching has brought it on.
“If you do something this way, it makes the game better. The game is actually there – we’re just brushing off the rough edges. That’s the way I see it. And that’s listening to my da for so long!”
He also pays a special mention to his goalkeeping coach Malachy McCoy and how this curious two-step run-up was conceived.
“Malachy was a half-back all his life – but he has an unbelievable knack for spotting flaws in technique.
“I’d be training away as normal and thinking I’m doing alright, and he’d pull me to the side and pick up on the wee things. You need someone like that.
“So it was Malachy who actually came up with the two-step run-up. I used to take eight steps back and two to the side when I took frees when I played midfield.
“Some would go high, some would go low and others would go all over the place...
“Malachy noticed when I would take a quick kick-out I’d just set the ball down and hit it.”
Together the pair worked on a four-step run-up, sometimes five and for a while they toyed with the idea of just two steps.
“We tried two steps and we thought it was not enough but we tried it and it went brilliantly.
“I can kick it just as far because the distance comes from how quickly you bring your leg through rather than how many steps you take in your run-up.
“[With a longer run-up] Malachy thought I had too much time and you’re thinking about it too much and maybe changing your mind when you see different players making runs.
“I’ve been honing and honing and honing it. I would look at other sports for ideas – you look at rugby and golf and how they hit different parts of the ball for back spin or top spin and stuff like that.”
Morrison borrows heavily from American Football and has studied the intimate relationship between quarter-back and wide receiver.
“I don’t mind teams when they push up,” he says, “because they are more concerned with marking their own men than space. Space is the danger.”
“Philippa always tells me I’m an over-thinker; I over-analyse things.
“If I’m in a situation I have to analyse every possible outcome. It’s another reason why I love playing poker because you’re trying to figure out what the other guy has and what his read is and whether he’s betting or not betting.”
It has taken Morrison 13 years to win a county title with Armagh Harps and he’s relishing the prospect of competing in the Ulster Club Championship and facing Fermanagh champions Derrygonnelly in Brewster Park tomorrow night.
Morrison’s county final performance was no fluke.
He is utterly and compellingly dedicated to his craft.
Maybe the sculptor does more than brush off a few hard edges…